Arcanum: Within the Sacred Union of the Arcana

Updated on July 10, 2020
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Building upon one’s religious and esoteric associations with the arcana intensifies a practitioner's perception and understanding of tarot card readings and may increase accuracy. For example, I recently discovered through my own research and study that I was deficient as a tarot reader because I lacked a gynocentric point of view. I am now working to remedy this by assimilating this unique viewpoint into my own conceptualization of archetypal functions. Meanwhile, this new awareness has caused me to consider how I can increase the number of feminine tarot decks I own to match the many other decks in my collection.


How do you use tarot for divination? In what way do your senses unlock its secrets?

There is a great deal of argument regarding the origins of the tarot arcana, and quite a few esoteric authors and lecturers represent the evolution of tarot in accordance with specific traditions. Arcanum—as defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary is, “mysterious or specialized knowledge, language, or information accessible or possessed only by the initiate.” In Latin, arca is defined as a chest, and arcere is "to shut or to close.” Arcanum also means ‘a tightly shut treasure chest holding a deep and meaningful secret (8).'


When unlocking the mysteries of the arcana it is helpful to understand its origins.

The Evolution of Tarot Cards

Card games introduced into Europe from the Middle East: Basel, Florence, Paris, Siena.
Tarot enters Europe from Bologna, Ferrara, and Milan Into France, Germany, Switzerland.
First theories of the occult and divinatory origin of Tarot develop in France.
Consolidation of theories regarding an occult and divinatory origin of Tarot
- “Dummett and the Game of Tarot”

When “Fortune Telling” Was Just a ‘Game’

According to Michael Dummett author of The Game of Tarot, it all began as a game entirely unassociated with occult or divinatory practices. This is evidenced he says in Francesco Marcolini’s (1540) published work on fortune-telling titled Le sorti in which the author utilized a regular pack of playing cards as a “randomizing device.” The divinatory element of the tarot originated in France in 1700, where tarot would take its name in French (tarot) as opposed to tarocchi; (Italian infinito)—tarrocare, to falsify/counterfeit; (io) tarocco; (tu) tarocchi).

Because of the many divinatory concepts that have become synonymous with the practice of tarot, Dummett recommends studying the meanings of the major arcana as they existed during the 14th and 15th Renaissance period as a way to understand the principal functions. The difference says Dummett has to do with perspective and becoming aware of how the various entities were included in the arcana. Apparently, the painters who created the many components of the game instituted specific images solely on the basis that they were easy to remember, not because of any spiritual or intellectual significance. Additionally, the basic structure of the system has changed, since as a game, there is no querent and no master for example. It's an equal and level playing field.

The ‘Game’ of Spirituality

The Triumphs (major arcana) game eventually came under scrutiny from powerful religious figures. A Dominican preacher, in a famous sermon called the Sermo perutilis de ludo cum aliis, delivered a passionate oration to his congregation about how the game was an instrument of the devil’s. Mostly because of the images of the angels, Pope, and as he saw it God, represented in the cards. He told them that no game should contain portraits of the divine.

The Way of Today’s Tarot Is Born

A Protestant pastor named Antoine Court de Gebelin, a scholar, and Freemason, under the pen name Etteila, was the first to produce what was to be a new tradition in tarot. He created a method of cartomancy in a tarot pack, infusing the game with ancient Egyptian religions called The Book of Thoth (1783). Marseille Tarot was the first deck used in a fortune-telling capacity—involving dice, cards, and Triumphs for betting and gambling as opposed to the divinatory, which didn’t occur until later on.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Antoine Court de Gébelin"Tarot trump card design from the Court de Gébelin essay Du Jeu des Tarots."
Antoine Court de Gébelin
Antoine Court de Gébelin | Source
"Tarot trump card design from the Court de Gébelin essay Du Jeu des Tarots."
"Tarot trump card design from the Court de Gébelin essay Du Jeu des Tarots." | Source

“.. without Etteilla [Antoine Court de Gebelin] there is no reason to suppose that anyone would have hit on the idea of using the Tarot pack for divination: most practitioners of fortune telling are singularly lacking in originality, and it was in Paris that the more successful ones practiced" (p.113).

— Dummett (as cited in Penco, 2013)

Formation of the Religious Union

Each arcanum of the tarot—is the ongoing progressive state of religious “union.”

There are seemingly countless mysteries interwoven into the arcana of today’s modern tarot. It was author Jean Baptiste Pitois aka “Paul Christian” who created the term “arcana." when he published Le dogme de la haute magie (1855). These 22 different segments of the “union,” contain entire processes of religion. Each position within the arcana is meant to be a clue and/or step towards illumination in the attainment of the union or the truth, and where practitioners must be initiated experientially (4).

Popular Aspects of the Arcana

  • Philosophy, Theurgic, Hermetic Traditions: According to “The Divine Arcana of the Aurum Solis: Using Tarot Talismans for Ritual and Initiation” author Jean-Louis de Biasi, the religious union began with Thoth and the Goddess Isis in the Hermetic Tradition and the preceding Theurgic knowledge, which was being taught in Alexandria, as well as the intiatic mysteries and its lineage. The “Golden Chain of the Masters” according to Biasi, began with ancient Egyptian civilization, where religion and magic were intertwined and the Theurgic Tradition developed, as described in the ancient texts of the time. The line of initiates includes the Greeks of antiquity, in which philosophic Platonism and Neoplatonism were some of the primary catalysts advancing Theurgist knowledge and the subsequent Hermetic writings and tradition.
  • Alchemy and astrology (“sacred sciences”): Dummett surmises that astrology and alchemy were always intrinsic to the arcana because similar to the use of satellites and the medicinal chemistry of today, these were the sciences of the period.
  • Kabballah: Tarot expert Robert Michael Place stated that the arcana became synthesized with Kabbalistic principles primarily due to French occultist Eliphas Levi during the 19th century. The 22 arcana grew to become individually symbolic of occult traditions unifying with early Christianity. In the Kabbalistic system, "Daath" is the Tree of Knowledge while The Tree of Life is hidden, so that practitioners must first be initiated. Kabballaic principles now encompass a wide expanse of Arcanic ideology, which also includes stories from the Bible and what is said to be the Arcanum (ark) of Noah.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
"Levi's key to the Bembine Table, first published in Eliphas Levi, History of Magic."Éliphas Lévi
"Levi's key to the Bembine Table, first published in Eliphas Levi, History of Magic."
"Levi's key to the Bembine Table, first published in Eliphas Levi, History of Magic." | Source
Éliphas Lévi
Éliphas Lévi | Source

Popular Aspects Continued

  • Freemasonry: Metaphysical Idealism: Eliphas Levi whose follower Paul Christian coined the expression Major and Minor arcana, was a teacher of “the Science of Transcendental magic,” a summary of all sciences. About his book ‘this Great Arcanum of Transcendental Magic’, he's reported to have said ‘IS the tarot. ‘Levi's magical works and philosophies became a major part of fellow Freemason Joseph Paul Oswald Wirth’s 22 Arcana of the Kabbalistic Tarot (5).
  • Christianized Theosophical Tarot: Freemason and translator of many of Eliphas Levi’s works including “Transcendental Magic,” Arthur Edward Waite, co-creator of the Smith-Waite Tarot Deck, infused the works of Levi, Paupas, and Theosophical mysticism into the deck, which was drawn by female Golden Dawn member, Pamela Coleman Smith. Waite had experimented a great deal with various orders and lodges and at some point became a member of the Christian Masonic Order of the Knights Templar. Aleister Crowley feeling threatened by Waite's accomplishments is said to have “viciously satirized” Waite in his novel Moonchild. Years later in 1971, US Games purchased the rights to publish the deck, renaming it under a few different titles until finally settling on Rider-Waite Tarot.
  • Internal alchemy, Transmutation magic, and the doctrine of physical reintegration/immortality: Arcana Arcanorum by Count Alessandro Cagliostro an 18th-century healer combines the secret rituals of a number of occult groups throughout Europe. A Cagliostro tarot called Destino Svelato Dal Tarocco was published in 1912. Each of the major arcana cards bares a celestial or esoteric symbol, and the cards of the deck are numbered 1–78.

Wheel of Fortune - Epic Tarot
Wheel of Fortune - Epic Tarot | Source

“we can predict the future, when we know how the present moment evolved from the past.” He had been discussing “an intuitive method that has the purpose of understanding the flow of life, possibly even predicting future events, at all events lending itself to the reading of the conditions of the present moment.”

- Carl Gustav Jung; Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology.

— [h/t Open Culture] / Wikipedia contributors

Medical Psychology Joins the ‘Game’

Jung’s theories about archetypes, synchronicity, the collective unconscious, etc. have become exceedingly influential on the arcana of the tarot. Dr. Wang’s The Jungian Tarot Deck; Jung and Tarot an Archetypal Journey – Nichols; The Way of the Tarot: A Jungian Approach to Working More Deeply with the Tarot – Hamaker, are just a few of the works available pertaining to the vast Jungian Arcanum.

Carl Jung regarded the arcana of the tarot as “an alchemical game” that symbolizes or attempts the “union of opposites.” That it “presents a rhythm of negative and positive, loss and gain, dark and light,” says Open Culture. Jung had been working on what he referred to as an “astrological experiment” with the archetypes of the tarot and in 1960 stated:

"we had begun such experiments at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, using the historically known intuitive, i.e., synchronistic methods (astrology, geomancy, Tarot cards, and the I Ching)..."

Jung seems to have passed away before advancing the project to a point sufficient for peer review.

There are numerous benefits for tarot practitioners who understand the extensive nature of the arcana and the synonymous relationship it shares with our practical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual lives.

Arcanum 1: The Magician Tarot, Alchemy, and Kabbalah

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 m wilson


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